Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Our Fear of Silence

Repost from January 2013

The cultivation of mindfulness requires periods of focused attention.  Many proponents of mindfulness maintain that this is best developed through seated, silent meditation.  So, while I’d like to investigate how to focus the attention, we must first consider our relationship with silence.

Whether in the center of a city or deep in a forest, the cacophony of sounds around us makes it apparent that true silence is impossible.  Composer John Cage wrote music that included long periods of silence.  When the musicians stopped playing, concertgoers were quickly confronted with the shuffling, shifting, and coughing sounds in the concert hall.  So what is silence?  I like to think of it as the absence of intentional sound.  Intentional sounds are the things we turn on such as TVs and iPods, the words spoken or heard in a conversation we are engaged in, music we make such as humming or tapping, and the noise of tools, keyboards, or other objects we are interacting with.  Sounds that remain are unavoidable.  So silence is when we are purposefully quiet.  For many of us, this can be unsettling.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Medical Model

Reposted from November 2012

While I believe mindfulness meditation has been the keystone to my recovery, I still think of it as an adjunct therapy.  I couldn’t manage mental illness as well as I do now if I did not meditate.  But I acknowledge that the medication my doctor prescribes and the therapy visits I have with him are crucial as well.  Only through the consistent application of all three therapies am I well.

Mindfulness meditation is currently all the rage, and it works.  But I am wary of its proponents who claim it can treat (or even cure) mental illness by itself.  Meditation is a powerful tool when used to decrease stress and increase well-being.  But if we are to maintain that mental illnesses are biochemical malfunctions of the brain and nervous system, then we must allow room in treatment for medicine.  Therapy also has a long history of positively impacting the lives of those challenged by psychiatric illness.  Meditation, when added to more traditional and well-tested methods of treatment, can help a patient successfully manage a challenging life.  I, and so many others like me, am proof of that.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Anxiety and Society

The primary job of the American consumer is to manage anxiety.  Whether confronted with choices of excess or sustenance, balancing a dizzying array of options with limited financial resources, the classic economic problem, has resulted in a society of people pre-occupied with managing stress and its related discomforts.  Connectivity and its string of constant updates have led a certain status to novelty.  The constant effort to be relevant, witty, insightful, or on-trend, or at least not mundane, adds a knowing sense of “not good enough – does anyone really care?” to our increasingly tangential social interactions.  We used to confine our choices to what we knew was available, and we used to confide our opinions in a trusted few.  Now the world is our market and our audience, although I fear many fret that no one is listening.  The ease with which we can inquire, inform, and impress (or disappoint) is boundless.  We buckle under the pressure to be exceptional individuals with networks who care.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How Guided Meditation Can Become a Distraction

Reprinted from April 2013

I come from a long line of seekers, my mother’s side of the family known for trying on various spiritual traditions in a search for truth.  My mother herself has been experimenting with meditation recently, and has tried several forms of guided meditation.  The one that has worked best for her is Oprah Winfrey's and Deepak Chopra’s 21-day meditation challenge on the computer.

Last week she wanted to share with me a meditation she finds beneficial.  It was a busy day at her house, with much of the family in and out, so we escaped to her office to follow the guided instructions.  While I am glad so many people are following this program and finding relaxation in meditation, I found it too distracting to be truly mindful.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Challenge Yourself

In my last post I mentioned a contemplative practice based on Lectio Divina, the meditative practice of “divine reading.”  It can yield creative insight into challenges that confront us, and help us work out where we sit in relation to key questions or ideas that influence our lives.  I’d like to present it here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Rejecting or Embracing the Sacred

I recently taught a class in creative contemplation that was based on Lectio Divina, or divine reading.  It is a practice undertaken by contemplative Christians and monks in which one completely surrenders to the voice of God as inspired by a line of scripture.  I have no real allegiance to Christianity, other than my upbringing, and presented the practice in a completely secular course.  Much modern meditative and contemplative forms are presented this way.  Centuries old sacred traditions stripped of theology and much underlying philosophy as a means of adapting each to a stressful, material world.  Sort of like insisting that prayer without an object or spirit to pray to will bring about a miracle.  The act, not the deity, holds the influence.  In my busy life in the city this means poses no problems.  But I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in the mountains, very quiet, and found the entire secularization of sacred traditions troubling.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

I'd Rather Shock Myself

A much cited study from researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard (actually a survey of 11 studies) has found that most people, across all age groups, would rather not sit alone in quiet with their thoughts.  The majority would opt for some distraction or point of focus outside of their own mind over six to fifteen minutes of silent contemplation.  In one of the studies, two-thirds of the men and one quarter of the women preferred to give themselves a mild electric shock over sitting alone in silence, even in their own homes, for a few minutes.

Another study has found that 56% of people in the United States cannot simply sit and watch TV without engaging with other digital media.

It as also been found that an ambient noise level of about 70 decibels (the hum of the neighborhood coffee shop) boosts creative thinking more than silence does.